MHERST — His family and friends were there, nearly 30 of them from as far as away as his home in the Virgin Islands. Some came from the Bronx, N.Y., where Kitwana Rhymer attended high school.
His men's basketball teammates were there, too — Monty Mack and Shannon Crooks and others, helping Rhymer celebrate the day he never stopped believing would come.
"Kitwana's a very positive thinker," his mother, Joycelin Hendricks, said after watching her son accept his diploma with other University of Massachusetts graduates at commencement yesterday. "And I guess I'm, well, a driving force. I don't give up too easily."
For former academic non-qualifier Rhymer to be at commencement, cap and gown and all that great stuff, is college sports at its best. For the 6-foot-10 center to also restore his fourth and final year of eligibility is a bonus, albeit a very important one.
Rhymer is not quite there yet. He must still finish his last few credits this summer to make that sociology degree official. But the hardest part is over, and students in his situation are correctly allowed to celebrate commencement with their class.
Basketball made this possible. In our zeal to beat Temple, we forget this is why colleges have teams in the first place.
"He was getting pretty tall (as a teen-ager), and he had to do something," his mother said. "He used to play baseball, but he was a little awkward."
At first, Rhymer was a little awkward in basketball and in school, too. He came to UMass in 1997 as a non-qualifier, which meant he was ineligible in both academic categories, test scores and prep curriculum.
To get to Graduation Day, he has been playing catch-up ever since. Rhymer sat out his freshman basketball season, and NCAA rules at the time said he could never get it back.
But later, the rules were changed. If he graduated in four years, the lost season would be restored, and he could play in 2001-02. A blessing.
"It's good to get the diploma, and that extra year," he said. "A lot of people don't get that."
He also came to UMass as a very raw player. Last season, he was named the Atlantic 10's best defensive player, and its Co-Most Improved Player with teammate Micah Brand.
It was his mom who had chosen UMass for him.
"A lot of colleges had been calling him, day after day," said Hendricks, who has a master's degree in sociology. "Kit finally ran out of the house and said, 'Mom, you answer the phone.' He didn't know he was coming here until I told him."
When Vince Carter left his Toronto Raptors to attend his commencement at North Carolina, he was questioned for abandoning his team on the morning of a big game. But if you saw Rhymer hugging family and friends in that cap and gown, you'd understand.
"Shucks, I think that was a plus," Rhymer said. "(Carter) was proud he went back and got his education."
"It's what college is supposed to be," said Rhymer's brother, Vernon "Junior" Turnbull. "Basketball is just a residual thing."
After commencement, Rhymer held colorful balloons marked "2001" high above a head adorned with that priceless, unmistakable cap and tassel. He was beaming.
"It's good, real good," he said. "It's such a great thing. A lot of people said I couldn't do it."
But once he wraps up his summer work, he'll have done it, and he'll officially become Kitwana Rhymer, academic non-qualifier turned college graduate. Next time we get all wrapped up in the Top 25 polls, we should all remember this story, an example of what college sports can be and — at its best moments — still is.